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The Covid-19 Crisis Is a Chernobyl Re-Run for Americans

I grew up under a radioactive cloud. Now, I worry for my son.

Ivy Johnson for Fatherly

On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the heart of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant 859 miles away from my home soccer field in Munich burned, releasing a plume of highly radioactive fallout. The reactor, number four, had caught fire during a misbegotten safety test. The fallout from the open-air blaze had exited the massive Chernobyl complex, intended as a concrete testament to Soviet energy prowess, and begun showering swathes of Europe with radioactive contamination.

Of course, we didn’t know that. What we knew — we being my friends and I — was that our high school soccer coach, whom we affectionately called Fritz, believed in drills and exercise. Springtime in Munich tends to be bleak, the sky is gray or rain is falling. We practiced in the wet. We dribbled and passed and blocked then trudged home to dinner under darkened skies puffed up by those ominous German clouds. 

It’s not as though no one noticed. Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway all reported higher than normal levels of radioactivity. Their representatives had reached out to the USSR for information, but the Politburo only doubled down on denial. They minimized and obfuscated. They did not want to anger Gorbachev. The apparatchiks waited a full week to reveal what the world already suspected: disaster on a previously unimaginable scale.

For many, Chernobyl is a metaphor. For me, it remains a personal affront. There’s a swirl of winds over Germany and Eastern Europe egged on by the North Atlantic Drift. The clouds over my soccer field were likely seeded with poison. Men in uniform in Moscow acted quickly to save face, not children and not me. I still worry during physicals and mammograms. It keeps me up nights. I learned young what it means to be collateral damage.

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My son plays soccer too. He’s talented and I am — because I never quite shook Germany off after the family came home — more than eager to support his passion. Right now, that looks like passing a ball in the park, asking him to show me some moves, demanding a bit of light drilling. My kid plays goalie so I practice curving the ball to get it past him. Mostly, I fail. Mostly, I suspect, he humors me. But with the coronavirus lockdown in full effect in New York City, this is all we can do and, even then, we can only justify doing it when we’re largely alone. 

I don’t want to emulate Fritz, who sent us out in the rain because he believed in us but didn’t see the broader picture.

I grew up with the American triumphalism of the 1980s — nowhere more apparent than in Germany — but I also grew up in the shadow of the USSR, close enough to know we didn’t win the Cold War. The Evil Empire crumbled under the weight of callousness, stupidity, and incompetence. The USSR collapsed because lies have a half-life — one shortened by mass death. 

I look towards Washington now. Coronavirus is not our president’s fault, but his flaws — the vanity, the dishonesty, the conflation of his own agenda with the collective good — are familiar. But he’s not Gorbachev. He’s a member of the politburo, a sycophant unwilling to speak hard truths to the boss, played here by corporate interests and an unruly mob. Watching him behind the White House podium, dispensing bad science and hysteria, I can’t help but conclude my son now plays on the same soccer field I once did. There’s no such thing as home-field advantage.

As a parent, I’m left picking through the least bad of the bad options available to me. Every child development expert I’ve spoken to advises me to stay calm, keep my anxiety in check, and not pass my own existential concerns toward my child.  It’s no mean trick. There’s little left to talk about. There are no games to watch. So, in the face of our abandonment by the powers that be, we play pass. We talk about the mundane nuts and bolts of family life and French forward Antoine Griezmann and how Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku can’t quite seem to finish.

My son tells me that I have a solid left foot, but that I need to learn to arc the ball a bit more. He’s not wrong, but it’s also not going to happen. I’m just keeping him busy until the storm blows over. If the storm blows over.